Who she is: One of the most acclaimed performers and composers in contemporary jazz, and an out and proud lesbian in what she once called “a hetero scene.”
What she’s accomplished: Pianist, singer, and composer Patricia Barber has been thrilling audiences for more than 30 years. She’s recorded over a dozen albums and toured internationally, while, when she’s not on the road, maintaining a steady Monday night gig at the venerable Green Mill, one of the top jazz clubs in her hometown of Chicago. Her talent has also won her a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Barber, the daughter of a saxophonist who had performed with Glenn Miller’s orchestra, began studying classical piano at age 6. She continued her classical focus through college at the University of Iowa. But she found the pull of jazz irresistible, and in 1984 she began playing jazz tunes five nights a week at Chicago’s intimate Gold Star Sardine Bar. Her fame spread from there, and she’s appeared at clubs, concert halls, and festivals all over the world, performing a mix of standards, obscurities, and her distinctive original compositions.
“Packed with witty, intellectual lyrics, startling harmonic twists and vocals that range from a dusky whisper to a piercing scream, Barber’s music isn’t easily categorized,” wrote John Frederick Moore in the magazine Jazziz in 2013. “Her mix of jazz, pop and art song results in something completely unique.”
Her most recent album, Smash, features what she describes as her first gay song, “Devil’s Food.” It was her response to the backlash against marriage equality. “It made me mad, and it made me want to make a declaration — but to make it fun,” she said upon the album’s release. “I find one of the best ways to bring people to your perspective is of course to charm them, and music can always do that. That’s how I get a lot of people thinking about a lot of things. I mean, the lyrics are fairly graphic — ‘sweet on sweet, meat on meat’ — but the music is so beguiling, I think I make the case. And when it becomes clear that it’s turning into a gay disco song, it’s really fun watching people’s reaction, which is surprise and mostly delight.”
Her longtime partner, Martha Feldman, whom she married in 2011, had told Barber it was time to write a gay song, the musician recalled. Feldman is quite distinguished in her own right. She is the Mabel Greene Myers Professor of Music, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Humanities at the University of Chicago, and she has received numerous awards for her teaching and research. Her book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, dealing with the men who underwent castration between the mid-16th and late 19th centuries to preserve their singing voices, will be published by the University of California Press next year.
Barber initially had some trepidation about being out in the jazz world. “I had a whole issue with that,” she told the Washington Blade last year. “I was working at a pretty famous club in Chicago that was very popular. ... And yeah, at the beginning — this was many, many years ago — I wondered if they would have hired me if I’d been out. It was such a hetero scene there so I definitely worried about it but then I came out to my boss and … he thought it was sexy and kind of cool in a sort of perverted way. But it hasn’t ended up affecting my audience at all. They’ve always been mixed — straight, gay, black, white, young, old.”
Choice quote: “It’s the first thing on Wikipedia. I’m a lesbian jazz musician. To me, that’s not a category, but OK. I’m hoping as we’ve all grown older that being gay continues becoming just part of the normal fabric of everything and people will focus on the music more, but you have to remember, years ago we weren’t anywhere close to where we are now on that.” — Barber to the Washington Blade in 2013
For more information: Barber has a comprehensive website with biography, discography, press clippings, performance dates, videos, and more. Watch a video about Smash below.